Sunday, 15 September 2019

Google me a lesson!

We live in the age of Google. A time when we can access any knowledge we want, supposedly. We often hear that students need 21st century skills as new technology has made the old ones defunct. The problem is, and most adults know this, that whilst the internet is good for finding small bits of knowledge, like what is the most popular name for a kitten, but it is pretty much useless when finding information about large ideas or nuanced thinking. 

Ask any normal teacher and they’ll tell you that they’ve had an eleventh hour search for a lesson or resource and found nothing. You may hit the odd gold seam, but rarely do you find anything of merit. In fact, you often find a PowerPoint with forty billion slides and each one contains lurid colours and the clip art circa 1990. The Internet has a glut of information and it takes time, not 21st century skills, to find the right information. In fact, it often takes hours.

When you have a few hours a week (or in some cases one hour) to get information and knowledge into the heads of students. An hour ‘researching’ in an ICT lab is dead time. You end up getting students to find the first thing they find and copy and paste that on to a Word document. The academic flavour of your studious exploration of academia becomes a sophisticated exploration of fonts. The colour and the size of the font matters more than the quality of ideas. 

As a teacher, my job is about explaining complex ideas. Whatever text I am teaching will have some level of complexity and I am the puppet master who helps convey that complex information to students. I think the Internet gives teachers, parents and students false confidence. It presents the idea that every crumb is accessible, easy and digestible, yet it largely isn’t. Since the increase in technology, I haven’t since an increase in geniuses. A teacher is needed to help with explanation.  

As teachers, we need to think about what, how and when we introduce ideas and concepts. For my department this year, I have been looking at how we impart knowledge and concepts. For each unit, I have provided a PowerPoint. A very simple PowerPoint.

Each PowerPoint contains a list of the concepts / ideas.

And, for every concept there is one page explaining the idea / concept. Just one page. I have thrown some dual coding in for good measure. The main focus is explanation. 

Then, as the teacher is teaching and they feel it is appropriate and relevant for the lesson, they can introduce the concept and idea. The slides contain extracts, pictures, art and text to convey the idea, concept or contextual point.  

The great thing for me is that it so simple and easy to do, but it really helps with planning, pushing to the top and time management. You simply drop the slide into a lesson, when the teacher feels it is relevant and purposeful. This week we explored the use of uncanny in the opening of ‘Rebecca’. I hadn’t planned to explore the uncanny with the text, but it just came to mind, and there was a ready-made PowerPoint slide.

My overall plan is have a huge PowerPoint of all the slides from the various topics, so teachers can call on it when they feel a need arises.  As teachers, we often like planning, but the Google search is often a drain. This way we can cut down time ‘wasted’ hunting for inspiration or a YouTube video that conveys the idea, so the teacher can work on explaining it to the class. 

The great thing for me is that the whole process is organic. I can add slides and concepts as and when they are needed - or thought of. Or, it can build as you are going along. I am currently doing one for Romeo and Juliet and I am on my fifth slide so far. I have even used it for an Ofsted lesson observation last year.  

When reading examiner’s reports, there is a large emphasis on ideas. I think we need to work intelligently on raising the profile of ideas. However, we have to be careful and pick the best moment when to introduce an idea. That’s the problem with readymade schemes of work. They force the points. Ideas are often borne out of something that occurs in a lesson. I feed these through my lessons over a term in no particular order. Some I don’t cover. Some I do. Overall clarity is needed for good explanations. 

Oh, and did I mention how it saves time? 

Thanks for reading, 


Here's an example of another unit: 

Sunday, 8 September 2019

O Punctuation, Punctuation. Wherefore art thou Punctuation? Romeo and Juliet

During the writing of my book, I came across an interesting find and it was all to do with punctuation. I came across differences in how the prologue is punctuated in ‘Romeo and Juliet’. When writing the book, I wanted the extracts to be easily accessible for teachers to quickly Google and find. There was an issue with one extract on Project Gutenberg. We couldn’t secure copyright for the material because Shakespeare’s words may not be copyrighted, but the editing is. And it was in this area that I found interesting. There are several differences in how the prologue has been edited in terms in punctuation.


Source: William J. Rolfe (1879)

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life,
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage,
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

Line 6 – semi colon is now a comma

Source: Wordsworth Classics (1992)

Two households, both alike in dignity
(In fair Verona, where we lay our scene),
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which
, if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

Line 2 – additional use of brackets

Line 5 – introduction of a comma

Line 6 – use of a colon rather than comma or semi colon

Line 13 – an insertion of a comma

Now, I don’t have some magical answers for the differences, but I have some possible ideas.

The introduction of brackets makes the parenthesis stronger, given it is an authorial interruption and clarification– ‘we lay our scene’. It also separates the narrative from the performance. The Volta marks the shift between narrative and performance.

Two households, both alike in dignity
(In fair Verona, where we lay our scene),
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which, if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

When looking at the structure like this, it does make me wonder if ‘(In fair Verona, where we lay our scene)’ was just Shakespeare struggling with a line and a rhyme.

Then, there is line 6. The use of comma at the end allows for a sense of flow and continuation and consequences of events. Things are listed.  However, when you use a semi colon, there seems to be clear sense of connection. Semi colons link clauses together, so here we have a connection between the end of their life and their parents’ strife. For me, and that’s just me, I view the change to a colon to be an accusation. The colon isn’t just linking or showing the consequence, but instead show us the cause. Colons can be used to introduce an idea and here I view the colon’s usage as introducing the cause. They died; this is the reason why.  

We often use Shakespeare in lessons, but I’d say we rarely look at how the version differs in terms of editing. It is only when we have different page numbers in the book do we explore the different versions of a text. The simple use of a comma or colon can change the meaning of line. These subtle differences add additional layers to the text. It would be ludicrous to explore how every line and page is different, but occasionally it might be nice to see how they are edited differently. The Arden version uses brackets on line 2, but uses a comma at the end of line 6.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 1 September 2019

Mr C’s 5 Cs

Many moons ago, I used to teach literature texts with ‘Mr C’s 5 Cs’. When we looked at a text, students had to focus on Contrasts, Changes,  Comparisons,  Conflicts, Connections. It was a silly thing to get students to avoid retelling the plot of stories, when we had open book exams. Anyway, I was reminded of this little soundbite when reading the English Literature GCSEs exam reports. One overriding thing I got from them was the emphasis of ideas rather than techniques and critical readings of the text.  

The problem we have is the extract, because for a lot of students it is a boulder stuck in the centre of their thinking. I often say to the students that the extract doesn’t have the answer and it is only there so they can say something about the language of the text. I tend to say essays need a sprinkle of the extract and that the discussion should relate to the whole text. However, I got thinking about how we could use the extract more effectively and develop a student’s thinking of the whole text at the same time.

So, I thought I’d have a go myself. I’ve taken this extract from ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Mercutio is persuading Romeo to attend a masked ball.


Give me a torch: I am not for this ambling;
Being but heavy, I will bear the light.
Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance.
Not I, believe me: you have dancing shoes
With nimble soles: I have a soul of lead
So stakes me to the ground I cannot move.
You are a lover; borrow Cupid's wings,
And soar with them above a common bound.

Connections – What does the extract connect to?

Romeo and Mercutio’s relationship – we see later in the text how Romeo and Mercutio look out for each other

Mercutio’s attitude throughout the text – in opposition to Romeo

References to light – Romeo want to hold the torch – Juliet is viewed in terms of light

Repetition of ‘torch’ – ‘she doth teach the torches to burn bright’

The use of the verb ‘soar’ and ‘common bound’ reflects the incident on the balcony  

Romeo is referred to as gentle and his behaviour throughout the play is ‘gentle’ until Mercutio’s death

Conflict – what are the conflicts here? How does this extract conflict with events in the story?

Mercutio wants to go, yet Romeo doesn’t want to engage

Happy friends and he is unhappy

Internal conflict of Romeo - he is in love with Rosaline and doesn’t want to think of anybody else

Conflicts with Romeo’s behaviour in the next scene

Contrast  - what does the extract contrast with?

Benvolio’s relationship with Romeo and how he responds to Romeo’s lovesick attitude in Act 1

Romeo’s behaviour in the next scene – no sign of this negativity and hesitancy – lack of consistency in the play

Contrasts with the idea that love is natural – Mercutio forcing Romeo to find love  

Changes – what is the change here?

Romeo’s attitude

Comedy – this scene is more comic than the scenes beforehand

Comparisons – What does this extract mirror or compare to?

Capulet’s telling Paris to attend the ball

Lady Capulet telling Juliet to attend the ball

Nurse trying to cheer Juliet up after Tybalt’s death

Friar trying to convince Juliet not to take drastic action

I don’t intend this to be a comprehensive list, but these different elements help to shape our understanding of the relationship between the text and the extract. You could see how there are patterns. That the young characters are always being forced to do things against their own will, whether it is their parents or their peers. 

All too often, when we look at the extract question, we look at simply connections so maybe we need to be a little more specific about those connections. Perhaps, naming the connections between the text and the extract is the start. At least, it is an activity to do with an extract.

Thanks for reading,


Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Of Mice and Men and Religion

As part of developing our curriculum in KS3, we are placing emphasis on three cross topic components.

For Year 7, we, like most, are focusing on classical myths, which is great when we cover aspects such as the Victorian novel and Shakespeare.

For Year 8, we are looking at fairy tales which makes some great connections with Gothic horror and Charles Dicken’s ‘Great Expectation’.

For Year 9, we are looking at stories from the Old Testament and New Testament. But, in looking at these stories it made me revise my thoughts on the John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’. Now, I am not the novel’s biggest fan and like a lot of teachers we just got a little bit fed up of teaching it, but I do have a new appreciation of the book now.

A lot of what I am exploring is interpretation and like most interpretations you are free to think ‘yep’, ‘no’ or ‘ what utter codswallop!’.

The Garden of Eden?

Since the dawn of time, teachers have been making associations between the opening and ending of the novel with the ‘Garden of Eden’. It is so perfect. So calm. So innocent. It even has rabbits and nothing says garden at the beginning of the world like big fluffy rabbits. In fact, so determined are we to extend the interpretation we try to crowbar the serpent in with the water snake. That isn't tree climbing snake.  

I believe we have become so blindsided that we make the setting the ‘Garden of Eden’ for simplicity. Aside from Steinbeck’s theme of nature, I feel that there is a different garden we should be thinking about when looking at the novel.

There is a path through the willows and among the sycamores, a path beaten hard by boys coming down from the ranches to swim in the deep pool, and beaten hard by tramps who come wearily down from the highway in the evening to jungle-up near water.

The novel doesn’t make the opening setting a place devoid of humanity. It makes it clear that is frequented by humanity on a regular basis. And, if your knowledge of the bible is a little bit dodgy, then you might have missed that there was only two humans in the Garden of Eden. Not lots of them. Not a few living in a village nearby.

I feel that the opening has more akin to the Garden of Gethsemane. A garden associated with friendship. A garden associated with reflection. A garden associated with betrayal.

The Garden of Gethsemane was a garden on Mount of Olives (I know, California doesn’t have that many olive groves but it does have mounts) outside Jerusalem. After the Last Supper, Jesus goes to pray with his disciples. At this point, he is betrayed by Judas, captured and then crucified.

Let that sink in. After his last bowl of slop, Lennie goes to the brush to seek mental and emotional solace from his disciple, George. At this point, he is betrayed by George and killed. I know that there are no olives, but the similarities are striking. For years, I have sold the idea that the brush was an allusion to the ‘Garden of Eden’ and how sin changed everything. Of course, there are other interpretations. For this blog, I am focusing solely on the religious interpretations.

The Judas Kiss

Now, let’s look at George’s …sob…sob…sob betrayal. The infamous Judas kiss was an act that could be open to two interpretations. One: a kiss is an act of affection and respect. You only kiss the ones you love and respect. Two: a kiss is the signal that the person kissed is Jesus so the soldiers can capture him.

 "No," said George. "No, Lennie. I ain't mad. I never been mad, an' I ain't now. That's a thing I want ya to know." The voices came close now. George raised the gun and listened to the voices.                                                                        Lennie begged, "Le's do it now. Le's get that place now."  "Sure, right now. I gotta. We gotta."                                        And George raised the gun and steadied it, and he brought the muzzle of it close to the back of Lennie's head.

If we take this interpretation further, we need to look Judas’ role. George’s telling of the dream is both an act of affection and a betrayal. He is telling the story out of love for Lennie because it mentally and emotionally calms him down, but at the same time it is a distraction for the act of shooting him in the head.

Judas isn’t the only disciple to betray Jesus. Peter denies knowing Jesus three times. George often hides the truth about Lennie several times. Although, he doesn’t actual deny knowing Lennie, he fails to tell the truth numerous times in the story.

An' you got it away from him and you took it an' you killed him?"

 "Yeah. Tha's how." George's voice was almost a whisper. He looked steadily at his right hand that had held the gun.  

So is George and amalgamation of Judas, Peter and the soldiers who took pity on Jesus when he was crucified. This for me possibly heightens the complexity of George’s character. Possibly, George even plays the role of Mary / Joseph. He treats Lennie as his own flesh and blood as a promise to somebody– ummm sounds familiar.

And the ending for George. Judas committed suicide after the Garden of Gethsemane. I cannot help but think something similar would happen  

“Woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” Mark 14:21


We know that literature throws up lots of allusions in relation to Jesus Christ. If there was someone presented with Christ-like perfection, it would have to be Slim.  I think interpreting Lennie as Jesus Christ figure is complicated given that Lennie kills people. However, there is an interesting relationship between innocence and power. Jesus was an innocent and kind man who was feared because of his powerful influence on others. With Lennie we have a largely innocent and kind man who cannot control his power. His power has a destructive influence.  Therefore, both die to prevent their power increasing. They both have visions when travelling through the wilderness. Only one has rabbits.

Now, here is where the story diverges from the crucifixion story. Most certainly Curley would have crucified Lennie and made him walk the streets with a wooden cross. Here, we have something more humane. Judas, I mean, George, prevents the crucifixion.

Added to this is the idea of sacrifice. The sacrifice of a loved one to atone for past sin.

 Other interesting religious interpretations

·         David and Goliath – a childlike Lennie defeats a (short) powerful figure of hatred Curley

·         Samson and Delilah  – a man with some interesting hair (might have curls) is obsessed with a woman. Look at how pleased Curley’s wife is when Curley’s power is taken away from him. Who asked Curley to wear the glove?

‘yep’, ‘no’ or ‘ what utter codswallop!’ – I will let you decide.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 21 July 2019

Girls do try and that might be where the problem lies

I really, really, really enjoyed ‘Boys Don’t Try’ by Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts. For me, it’s a strength, is its unpicking of gender stereotypes and how our own prejudices can be part of the problem surrounding boys in education. Anyway, I was thinking about this book as my own daughters finished primary school this week and they also received their SATs results.

It is sad to say this, but my daughters’ experience of primary school has not been the positive experience I had hoped it to be. Married to a dedicated, hard-working and committed, primary school teacher, I know what a fantastic job primary schools do. In fact, I work with a lot of superb primary schools and primary school teachers. I know how great primary schools can and should be. They are fun, enjoyable and great places, but for us, as a family, we have been counting the days for when my daughters left the school. And, the saddest thing of all was that my daughters were doing the counting down themselves.  
So, where did it go wrong? It wasn’t really the systems. It wasn’t really the teachers. It wasn’t really the headteacher. However, I could possibly write a book on our experiences and dealings with the school. I think the problem stems with how they dealt with girls and different kinds of girls.  

As a dad of two daughters, I am starting to realise things about my daughters. Each one has two personas. A school persona and a home persona. They are both very different people, but really they are alike in so many ways. The school persona is polite, friendly, chatty and helpful. The home persona is well the opposite – there will be a day, when they read these blogs and I will be in trouble! The home persona will say something and challenge things when the school persona will not, because they are worried they’ll get told off. Life for them is the battle between these two versions of themselves. They’ll tell me about how unfair I am as a dad at home, but they would shudder doing the same to a teacher. There’s this constant friction.
My daughters are perfect ‘Blue Peter’ girls. They’d love to enter a competition. They’d love to save a hedgehog. They’d love to know about compost making. They just want to get involved. And, this is the other problem: ‘ the kind good girl type’. They get lumbered with everything. Here’s a new student. Meet the ‘Blue Peter’ girls. It became a joke in our house about how every new student, and I mean every new student, was paired up with my daughters when they arrived at school. Good girls were seen, and are often seen, as the problem solvers. We’ll just use Jenny because she’s kind and friendly. My daughters were that girl and they got fed up of it.    

I hate ‘Star of the Week’ with a passion. From my experience, it is rarely fair and it is often used to pander to the boys. Tom kicked a ball. Star. Peter ran a race. Star. The girls have to wait for their ‘annual turn’. Yes, it often felt like a tick box exercise. Everybody would get a go once a year, because that is fair. It seemed to my daughters that the naughty boys got the award more often than them. The girls who wouldn’t swear within fifty miles of a school would be overshadowed by the boys who have been known to swear openly. The girls could see what was going on. They worked hard and it was the naughty boys who got praised for something that was expected from girls. That made the one mention a year all that more important.
Popularity is an interesting thing. Most people want to be seen as being popular. However, I have seen how the ‘popularity factor’ has a damaging effect on girls. My daughters put themselves up for school council most years. They occasionally got it, because nobody else volunteered and the teachers selected the successful candidate. In the final year, the school made the decision a democratic decision and the school voted for school president. My daughters didn’t get the role, because the school voted for the popular student in a fair and democratic process. The whole process was transparently about popularity and that was made public. The whole process became about highlighting how my daughters were not as popular as the other students.

The popular kids are usually the extroverts and the outspoken and confident students. I have sat through numerous school plays and assemblies listening to the popular kids and seen the other children hide in the sides, because they haven’t got the confidence to say a line or two. School plays tend to draw attention to this. At times, I think we should rename school plays to ‘The Popular Extrovert Show’. Not really a microcosm of schools, in my opinion. My daughters would love to have a bigger part, but they are not going to shout out for one. They are good.  
My daughters left the school. They didn’t feel sad. They just wanted to have a better experience. As girls, I don’t think they had that opportunity. Not because someone intentionally went out of their way to do something, but because the wrong focus here or there can have long-lasting damage on a girl. Schools will not see the impact they have on girls, because of the two personas. The school persona smiles, while the home persona cries. There’s so much more to girls’ behaviour and I think we neglect them heavily.

We have growing issues in secondary schools and I think we need to explore the girls' behaviour, just as much as the boys. Nationally, we have a problem with boys, but that doesn’t mean we need to have the spotlight solely on the boy.

I am just a dad trying to understand things and I happy to be corrected if I have misunderstood or misinterpreted something. 

Thanks for reading,


How to teach English

They say within every person is a book.

Over the past few years, I have been secretly writing that one book.

Finally, the book was published in its yellow and pink glory this week. 

The book is a bit like the blog as it contains ideas, thoughts, resources and questions about the teaching of English in schools.

So, if you like the blog and would like to read more, then you can purchase the book here.


Written by Chris Curtis, How to Teach: English: Novels, non-fiction and their artful navigation is jam-packed with enlivening ideas to help teachers make the subject of English more intellectually challenging for students – and to make it fun too!

Never underestimate your duty and power as a teacher of English. English teachers help students to think and feel. They prompt them to reflect on their actions. They hold a mirror to society and inspire students to see how they can make it better.

What other subject does that?

This insightful interpretation of what makes excellent secondary school English teaching is the work of a man whose humility fails to hide his brilliance and provides educators with a sophisticated yet simple framework upon which to hook their lessons. Covering poetry, grammar, Shakespeare and how to teach writing, Chris Curtis has furnished every page of this book with exciting ideas that can be put into practice immediately.

Each chapter presents a store of practical strategies to help students in key areas – providing apposite examples, teaching sequences and the rationale behind them – and has been accessibly laid out so that teachers can pinpoint the solutions they need without having to spend an age wading through academic theory and pontification.

The book explores the wealth of learning opportunities that can be derived from both classic and more contemporary literature and offers expert guidance on how teachers can exploit their own chosen texts to best effect with their students. Furthermore, it is replete with ready-to-use approaches that will help teachers upgrade their lesson planning, enhance their classroom practice and ensure that the content they cover sticks in their students’ heads for months and years afterwards.

Suitable for all English teachers of students aged 11–18.

Sarah Barker, English teacher and Assistant Head Teacher, Orchard School Bristol, and blogger 14th June 2019

How to Teach: English is packed full of practical ideas for the English classroom. Chris’ knowledge and experience shine through in his writing, as he shares what he demonstrably knows will work in practice and provides really sound advice for trickier areas of the curriculum.

This is a timely book – schools wanting a renewed focus on the application of the curriculum would do well to start here for their English faculties.

Mary Myatt, author of Hopeful Schools, High Challenge, Low Threat and The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence 14th June 2019

This is a magnificent book that really gets to the bones of teaching English. It manages the remarkable feat of scoping the panorama of the subject: its magic, its power and its potential to take students to other worlds. And set against the big picture are commentaries on, and brilliant examples of, how to bring English lessons to life in the classroom.

How to: Teach English should be essential reading for all engaged in teaching, not just of English but of other subjects too – everyone will take something from the precision, the wit and the humanity of this terrific book.

Mark Roberts, English teacher, blogger and writer 14th June 2019

How to Teach: English is clever, wise and highly practical. Awash with creative prompts and pragmatic advice, it is an accessible and entertaining read which deserves its place on the creaking bookshelves of any English teacher.

Dipping in, you’ll find the kinds of ideas that make you think, ‘I wish I’d thought of that.’ At the same time, Chris’ obsession with self-improvement shines through. Full of humility, honesty and mischievous humour, this is a book about getting better by – to paraphrase the title of Chris’ hugely influential blog – learning from mistakes.

It includes an ambitious and comprehensive list of chapters – focusing on key areas such as writing, grammar, Shakespeare and poetry – and illustrates the necessity of building knowledge and questioning our assumptions about our students’ prior learning. With his approach, Chris places a relentless focus on the writer’s craft and the power of words, advocating a sensible balance of high challenge, accessibility and creativity.

Quite simply, How to Teach: English is a guide to what excellent English teaching looks like – so whether you’re a trainee teacher or a battle-hardened veteran, this is an indispensable resource.

David Didau, author of Making Kids Cleverer 14th June 2019

Why, you might wonder, should I invest in yet another book on the teaching of English? This is a relatively crowded marketplace – and although there are many excellent books aimed at English teachers, none are so rooted in the subject as this one. Chris Curtis communicates not only his years of experience but also his infectious enthusiasm for a subject and an occupation he so clearly loves.

How to Teach: English is studded with an astonishing array of practical ways into the study, and the teaching, of all forms of literature as well as the nuts and bolts of language. Every page is illuminated by the gentle, guiding hand of someone who has been there, made all the mistakes you have made and survived to pass on the distilled wisdom and warmth of a true aficionado.

This is my new favourite book on English teaching – it will enhance the practice of any teacher of English, no matter what stage they are at in their career.

Andy Tharby, author of Making Every English Lesson Count 14th June 2019

Curtis’ smart and shrewd guide to English teaching is a welcome reminder of the potent, and too often untapped, wisdom and expertise of those at the chalkface who have learned through many years of careful and thoughtful trial and error.

For me, the greatest strength of this book lies in its central message: that English teaching is about the communication, sharing and generation of ideas, and that what matters most is the quality of thinking that happens within an English classroom. To top it off, Curtis gifts us a dazzling array of simple approaches that will guide all English teachers – from the fresh-faced newcomer to the grizzled staffroom-cynic – towards nurturing and getting the very best out of their students.

How to Teach: English really is a fabulous read. I cannot remember the last time I took so many notes when reading an education book. Needless to say, I recommend it to all teachers of English.

Amy Forrester, English teacher and Head of Year, Cockermouth School 14th June 2019

Chris’ book is an excellent manual for new and experienced teachers alike. His mixture of wisdom and experience blends together to provide teachers of English with a number of ideas that they can use in the classroom. It is a timely text, one which encourages practitioners to love what they teach – and is ideal for dipping in and out of, allowing readers to turn their attention to the chapters which cover their teaching focus at the time of reading. It is also packed full of signposts to interesting works of literature, which are perfect for the busy English teacher looking for some inspiration with the texts and topics they’re using in a lesson or during a unit of learning.

Alex Quigley, Senior Associate, Education Endowment Foundation and author of Closing the Vocabulary Gap 14th June 2019

Chris Curtis is the ideal teacher-writer, and in How to Teach: English he effortlessly manages the artful balance of packing in sage insights alongside a range of very practical approaches.

Funny, wise and imminently useful, this is a book from which every teacher of English – from nervous newbies to seasoned veterans – can plunder a wealth of ideas. So, no matter if you are perennially busy: put down your pile of marking and gift yourself this readable gem.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

The Law of Averages and Data Sponges

Recently, my school has joined a MAT and it has been brilliant for sharing ideas, resources and systems. One of those great things has been the use of data. In particular, the use of averages.

English teachers, on average, shy away from data. We’d rather focus on the words in a data report than comment on the strange things called numbers. Yes, I know there has been a drop in PP students, but ‘on target’ is an interesting phrase and has so many connotations. Let’s discuss each connotation in depth.

Nights before a meeting, I’d have sleepless nights and panic over not picking up something in the data soup. My biggest fear has always Ofsted or any other person asking me data questions. How many students in Year 8 are not on target? Panic sets in. I am impressed with the data sponges: people who can regurgitate figures off the top of their head. I look terrible in comparison. Umm…err…I think…let me just check this sheet… ummm…errr. I have it here. In fact, let me tell you about this book I have recently read.

I admit I will never be a data sponge, but over the last few years I am starting to ‘love’ data and help students to appreciate data surrounding English. And no, I don’t mean the number of nouns in a sentence or the number of compound sentences in a chapter of ‘Holes’ (a billion by the way).

We do lots of tests in English.

We test spellings, weekly.

We test vocabulary every term.

We test core knowledge at Christmas, Easter and in the summer.

We count the books students have read each term.

They are all low stakes tests, but we test them regularly. We have used this system for years and it all feeds into our system. Before this year, we tended to just fuel our data system with them. Here you go data monster. It is feeding time. Yummy data for you. An assessment point is just dinner time for the data monster.   

This year, I have started to use average scores and year averages.

At parents’ evening, we provided parents with the year average and the student’s average. I was able to tell a parent if their child was average in spelling, below average in reading and above average in knowledge and vocabulary. It was a really useful way for me to explain where a child was and for the parents where the child in relation to the year group.  

We live in the age of random numbers. Parents are confused with the SATs score. Is 104 good? Parents are confused with GCSE scores. Is 5 good? The national collective haven’t picked up on what these things in education mean. What, fundamentally, parents want is to know that their child is happy and performing well and that depends on the context? Using averages, I was able to tell a parent how their child did in our particular context.

Before people panic that I had reduced a child to a numbers, I did also speak to the parents of child number 2432 about their child’s natural flair for adjectives, explaining how he often uses an average of 7.8 in each paragraph, which is high for a student of his age.  Nah, only joking. I will talk about a child’s personality. How the child has personality trait 12386 and 4453!

An average score puts the data in context. We throw tests out like confetti.  However, there is a natural assumption that students have to get full marks all the time. Students think they need full marks. Parents think they need full marks. And this thought process is damaging. Success, in this case, is unrealistic. For the weak student who finds spelling difficult, he/she knows that he never will be successful. Especially, when success is 100%.  When you change the bar to averages, you change the success criteria for the weakest and for the majority of students.

Let’s say the average in spelling in Year 8 is 8 out of 10. A student who gets 7/10 knows that success is within his /her reach. Students with a score less than 8 are closer to success than they were before, when full marks is seen as the epitome of success.

When you factor in averages, you are ensuring more students feel successful or, importantly, feel like success is achievable. We’d all like 100%, but when you look at the GCSE exams you’ll see how rare it is that students get full marks. An emphasis on greatness and perfection is ideal, but we deal with young emotional people. The bar should be high, but within reach.

The GCSEs factor in averages. I couldn’t look at piece of work and tell you if it is a Grade 4, 5 or 6. I could do some marking and grade conversions, but could I tell you if it was average, above average or below average. And, with the grade boundaries fluctuating and varying, we need to think in averages. If you scored above average, then you are likely to get a Grade 4 or more. The exam boards work on national averages, so we should looking at averages.

I am now looking at the whole data for the year and I have a yearly average for each group. I have data from this year, which we can use with teachers next year. None of this getting to know you period. We can tell teachers what each students’ average for spelling, vocabulary, knowledge and reading is. Teachers can have that in mind when teaching the students in September. It is also the starting point for next year. For the teacher. For the student. For the parents. From year to year, we lose the impetus because students have different teachers. It takes teachers a good bit of time to understand a student fully. This way the teacher can know things about the student and work on building that relationship with them from the word go. Plus, if a student isn’t reading in Year 8, then I want that to be a priority in Year 9 and I want it to be a priority from the start.

I am still not a data sponge, but I have found the use of averages as head of department to be quite transformational. Averages have helped me make sense of the data and helped me to communicate it to staff and students. We are often led down the path of on target and not on target, but that doesn’t help to dig down into things. We need specifics. Now, I know that a certain year needs a stronger focus on spelling and some year groups need to work on reading. I can address the wider issues with clarity and precision.

An average helps us to understand the context.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 30 June 2019

The Fight: understanding parents of SEND students

I suppose I am in unique position because I understand this situation most as I am one of those parents. Before I carry on, I will say that I am not a reflection of all parents. Just the ones like me.

Teachers have empathy by the buckets. It is probably one of our key defining features. We can regularly empathise within seconds of a situation. In fact, if it was an Olympic sport, we’d regularly win as a nation. The problem, for me, is the difference between empathy and understanding. Teachers can easily empathise with a parent of SEND student, but rarely will they understand them.

I had an interesting conversation with a teacher this week and it highlighted this discrepancy. We were chatting about a situation and I simply said: ‘Do you know this parent has had to fight at every step of their life as a parent?’ The teacher simply didn’t see the situation like I do. I have lived it.

Parents of SEND students have had to fight for everything. The world would like to suggest that having a disability is one of ease, luxury and copious amounts of monetary benefits. It isn't. It is about a lot of conflict and fighting.

Being a father to child with Cerebral Palsy, I have lived with 'the fight for' over a decade. Everything is a battle. My wife and I are constantly fighting to get things done or organised. A battle that parents with non SEND children don’t have.  These are just some of the battles.

The fight to get an EHCP.

The fight to keep the EHCP and it not change.

The fight to get access to specialists.

The fight to get a blue badge.

The fight to get my daughter to do the activities that others do.

The fight to get regular physio.

The fight to get appropriate splints / wheelchair access. 

The fight to get a TA.

The fight to get a TA trained in physio.

The fight to keep the same TA.

The fight to get my daughter to be in the right group and not just the group where the TA is needed.

The fight to get systems right for my daughter.

The fight to get schools to see things from my daughter’s perspective.

The fight to get teachers to view my daughter academically rather than physically.  

That fighting takes time and it is the main reason my wife works part-time, because along with all that there are hundreds of appointments, meetings and check-ups.

There is also the conflict.

The conflict of being the parent who has to park close to the school for physical access when the others have to pack elsewhere.

The conflict of being the first on an aeroplane, when others have had to queue.

The conflict of having a parking space closer to the shop when others have had to wait for ages to find a spot.

The conflict of having preferential treatment in society.

I’d love to say that people are lovely and kind to a person with a wheelchair and people with a disability, but that wouldn't always be true.  People are kind, but every so often you get people who are not so kind. I find that people are not happy to wait when the reason the transport bus isn’t moving is because they are waiting for me with a wheelchair.

We get looks, stares and silent judgements.  Or, people will say something.

It is amazing how in some situations people forget common sense and human decency.

Then, you face all this alone. The fight. The conflict. There are not lots of us. My wife and I have dealt with all this on our own, because we live in a rural part of the world and there isn’t anybody nearby. We know of no one in the same situation as us. There isn’t a group of us in the playground. In fact, my daughter is the only child with Cerebral Palsy in the school. So, we are in a club of one. We have a clique of one.

So, when you talk and have dealings with a parent with an SEND child, think of the fight, conflict and social unease they have had to deal with. Think of how they have dealt with this on their own. School is just another thing to cause fight or conflict. Understand this and you’ll understand them and their children better. We don’t need emotions or sympathy. In fact, I’d be bold to say that the last thing I want from anybody is pity. Pity helps nobody. My sharing of this blog is not about garnering any emotion. I’d stuff your pity in your face like a big cream pie, if you so much have an ounce of pity in your heart after reading this.


Understand a parent and you understand the situation better.

Understand a parent and you understand a child.  

I will leave you with one little bit of understanding. A perfect example of what made my week. My daughter had a transition day in her new secondary school this week. During the day she had a PE lesson. The teacher told her she could go on any of the machines in the fitness suite, including the running machine. My daughter went on the machine and she loved it. She then told me afterwards, ‘people would never have let me do this in my school.’ Two types of caring people. One understood. One empathised.

Empathy can be hindering and damaging in a school. We have to control it as it dominates understanding. Empathy smothers children. Empathy stops things. Empathy stops people from pushing themselves to the limits. Caring can stop us from truly helping a child. It might seem like some backwards logic, but schools often compensate the difficulty of a situation with loads of compassion.

My daughter, when grown-up, doesn’t want pity; she wants you to understand that she finds it difficult to walk and that stairs are the work of Satan. My grown-up daughter, like me, would take the piss out of you, because bleeding hearts and emotions are not going to get her up those bloody stairs.

Thanks for reading,